Use Sidebars to Expand Without Overwhelming

by Doug Trouten

People love sidebars. These little morsels of content goodness act as side dishes to go along with the main course of your anchor story, adding useful and interesting material without overwhelming.

Sidebars can increase layout possibilities, especially for a story that is otherwise lacking artwork. Pulling material out of a main story for a sidebar can help trim the main story to a more manageable size. Somehow an 800-word story with three 200-word sidebars seems a lot less intimidating than a 1,400-word story. And if you're a writer, including a sidebar or two on top of your story at the assigned length can be an effective way to "up-sell" an editor by offering attractive add-ons.

Here are some examples of sidebars you can create to go with a story.

Didn't fit: This is the most common kind of sidebar. Sometimes when you're writing a story you come across something that's really interesting, but that just doesn't fit with your main story. Maybe it's an odd bit of history that would detract from your point, but that's just too good to ignore. The solution? Write a sidebar.

Personalize: If you have a story about an issue (say, homelessness) that's full of experts and facts and figures, run a sidebar giving the personal story of somebody affected by that issue -- say, a homeless person.

Generalize: On the other hand, if your story focuses on a person, create a sidebar that addresses the broader issue they're involved with.

For further reading: A visit to a library or to the Amazon website can give you information for a quick sidebar listing books about the topic of your story. This gives your readers somewhere to go if they want to learn more about your topic.

Get involved: If your story is going to get people interested in working with an issue, use a sidebar to tell them what to do with the passion they've created. For instance, if you're writing a story about hunger in America, use a sidebar to tell people how they can personally get involved in feeding hungry people.

Fast facts: This is a Dragnet-style, "Just the facts, ma'am" approach–pull out the basic facts on the topic at hand and present them in a box. Or pull out one or two startling facts and run them on their own as teasers, to draw people into the story–entry points.

Bio boxes: These are quick answers to questions by the subject of your story. People love these quick-reading looks at other people. Sometimes you do this along with a personal feature story, and sometimes you do let it stand on its own–feature a different person every issue. What are some questions you might ask? ("Behind my back, people say…," "I don't think I'll ever…," "Name three things in your refrigerator," "Favorite toy as a child.") A good strategy is to ask a lot more questions than you think you'll need, so you can pick the ones that elicit the zippiest answers.

Lists: People love lists. They're a popular and effective way to communicate, as you can see from examples ranging from the Ten Commandments to David Letterman's "Top 10" lists. Many subjects can be presented as a list. Look at the cover of any women's magazine and you'll see lists–10 ways to lose weight, 12 delicious desserts, 5 inexpensive ways to spice up your wardrobe. You can use a list as a sidebar with a longer story, or as an item on its own.

Checklists: A variation of lists, these are designed to be checked off when you accomplish a task, or to serve as a self-test of some kind. These are more interactive, and they make your readers participants rather than observers.

Q&A: One of the most popular formats, because if you don't like the Q, you can skip the A. Again, you can present this as a sidebar to a story, or as a standalone item.

Quizzes: We don't like to take tests in school, but we love to test our knowledge, as long as we can do it on our own. Like checklists, they're interactive, and they let your readers participate. That's why Cosmopolitan magazine has a quiz each issue–the "Cosmo Quiz" has become a cultural institution, although they tend to be pretty shallow, pop psychology things like "Can you resist temptation?" and "How mysterious are you?"

Surveys: We like to hear what other people think, and surveys allow this. Almost any story can have a survey with it–it's hard to think of a topic you couldn't do a survey on. Reading a survey lets you know where you stand versus the general population. There's a whole art to making surveys valid and reliable, but in general the more people you talk to the more useful your results will be.

Quote collections: These can be "man on the street" kinds of things, where you pose a question to a handful of people and print three or four responses along with their pictures. One way to do this is to go somewhere and get a bunch of pictures of people, then call them when you need the quote–it's much easier than rounding up new pictures each time. (If you do this, have them hold a chalkboard at chest-level with their name and phone number on it, so you have an easy way to know who’s who. Or, you can run famous quotes on the topic at hand. There are lots of on-line quote archives, and you can always look through "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations" or other hard copy quote references.

Charts and graphs: Many people have a hard time visualizing numerical data, so a chart or a graph may be the best way to help people understand a story with numbers.

Tables: Ideal for comparing two things side by side, but also good for other kinds of information–anywhere where you have more than one piece of information in multiple categories.

Ratings: We love ratings. Movie reviews, consumer reviews of products–they help us make decisions on how we spend our time and money, and can usually be presented graphically. If you have a story about the benefits of using a study Bible, why not include a chart rating some of the best-selling study Bibles?

Timelines: A fine way to take us through the history of an event. A timeline can make history interesting, by making it visual, and letting you see how things fit together, and what order they happened in.

Step-by-step guides: People love how-to. Some stories are best presented as a step-by-step guide, rather than a regular story. Provide art for each step, and you have a piece that will be easy to read, and useful for anybody who wants to do whatever it is you're talking about.

How do you figure out which of these elements to use? Budget may be part of the decision, as will available time. Ask yourself these questions: What is in my story that can be pulled out for use as a sidebar? What is in my story that readers might not understand? What do I need to explain more clearly in a graphic or sidebar? This kind of communication takes time, and money, but the result is a more readable product, a better-looking product, and a product that is more likely to inform readers.

Doug Trouten is the former executive director of the Evangelical Press Association.